Artists grapple with affordability gap in Northampton

Several affordable housing complexes have opened in recent years in Northampton, including at a 55-unit complex on Pleasant Street called The Lumber Yard.

Several affordable housing complexes have opened in recent years in Northampton, including at a 55-unit complex on Pleasant Street called The Lumber Yard. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

David Andrews, visitor services coordinator at the Smith College Museum of Art for the last 20 years, works on one of his art pieces at the front desk where he greets visitors.

David Andrews, visitor services coordinator at the Smith College Museum of Art for the last 20 years, works on one of his art pieces at the front desk where he greets visitors. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

After living in Northampton for years, Andrews now rents an apartment in Sunderland. He describes Northampton’s efforts to address expensive housing as “inadequate.”

After living in Northampton for years, Andrews now rents an apartment in Sunderland. He describes Northampton’s efforts to address expensive housing as “inadequate.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

“It lets me do my thing,” Smith College Museum of Art visitor services coordinator David Andrews says about the job he’s held the last 20 years. “It’s the only place I actually draw.” Unable to afford to live in Northampton, Andrews now rents an apartment in Sunderland.

“It lets me do my thing,” Smith College Museum of Art visitor services coordinator David Andrews says about the job he’s held the last 20 years. “It’s the only place I actually draw.” Unable to afford to live in Northampton, Andrews now rents an apartment in Sunderland. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

David Andrews, visitor services coordinator at the Smith College Museum of Art for the last 20 years, works on one of his art pieces at the front desk where he greets visitors. “It lets me do my thing,” said Andrews about  his job. “It’s the only place I actually draw.” After living in Northampton for years, he now rents and apartment in Sunderland. Andrews says Northampton’s efforts to address expensive housing as “inadequate.”

David Andrews, visitor services coordinator at the Smith College Museum of Art for the last 20 years, works on one of his art pieces at the front desk where he greets visitors. “It lets me do my thing,” said Andrews about his job. “It’s the only place I actually draw.” After living in Northampton for years, he now rents and apartment in Sunderland. Andrews says Northampton’s efforts to address expensive housing as “inadequate.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SADIE TSCHIDER, YANGYANG LYU and STELLA ALPHAS

For the Gazette

Published: 12-25-2023 6:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — From the grandiose Academy of Music at one end of Main Street to the “History of Women in Northampton” mural decorating the Verizon building to the quaint shops selling handmade pottery and watercolor greeting cards, Northampton is a city filled with art.

However, while their art decorates the city, artists struggle to afford to live in Northampton. The median salary of craft and fine artists is $53,140 in the United States. It costs an individual $2,353 monthly to live in Northampton, putting the city in the top 8% of most expensive cities in the world.

Meanwhile, the cost of living has been rising nationally. From 2010 to 2022, house prices have risen by 74%. According to the city’s most recent tax classification, the median value of a home in Northampton is $477,690, or $42,000 more than the median value in the rest of Hampshire County and almost $100,000 more than the median value in the United States.

While Northampton is working to provide more affordable housing, funding and developer availability make it difficult to meet the high demand for such housing in the area. This leaves many artists without the income to afford to live in Northampton and without access to affordable housing, many local artists say. Artists are often faced with no alternative, they claim, other than to leave the city.

Artists pushed out

In a poll on the 18,100-member Northampton Facebook page, we asked Northampton residents what news articles they would be interested in reading about Northampton. Local artist Dana Wilde proposed that we look into “the discrepancy between Northampton’s image as an ‘arts town’ versus the reality of how much it costs for any actual artists” to live in the area. Another 16% of responses to the poll reflected an interest in looking at affordability in Northampton.

A resident of Northampton for over 20 years, Wilde shared her struggle with finding housing and studio spaces. As an artist, musician and writer, Wilde highlighted that “there is a lack of art spaces” in Northampton, leading her to turn to restaurants and coffee shops to showcase her work.

Wilde said she has at times been faced with homelessness in Northampton. Volunteering for an art grant program in an effort to help young artists in the area, Wilde says she is devoted to the arts community in Northampton but recognizes that there is discrepancy between the city’s image as an arts community and its high cost of living for artists.

Avery Cassell, a resident of western Massachusetts, draws, paints, writes and designs coloring books about the queer community. They moved to Northampton in 2020 and found themselves living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment that they described as “tiny,” “dark,” and “dismal.” That description meant a lot, they joked, given that they had just moved from San Francisco.

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After inheriting enough money for a down payment on a home, Cassell was surprised to find that they still could not afford to live in Northampton and instead bought a home in Greenfield. Cassell says Northampton is like most places where people “like the idea of artists, but they don’t necessarily want to cough up the money to make sure artists have enough to live on.”

The issue of affordability is not lost on many of the leaders in the city arts scene, who in 2010 banded together to form the Northampton Community Arts Trust with the goal of identifying, acquiring and preserving affordable space for artists.

A brainchild of the late Gordon Thorne, longtime director of Available Potential Enterprises, the trust came about after arts leaders spent several years brainstorming ways to create such space in the face of the loss of artists and arts groups that have fled downtown for cheaper pastures elsewhere.

The trust subsequently bought a building at 33 Hawley St. in 2013, and since then the 25,000-square-foot space has served as a community space for supporting arts in the city. It houses three local arts organizations: A.P.E., the Northampton Center for the Arts and Northampton Open Media.

The trust recently completed final improvements to the building this year and reopened this month after being closed for most of 2023. Those improvements include new floors, added soundproofing in the two main performance areas, a concession stand and box office, and an expansive green room and changing areas for performers.

History of artists in Northampton

Historically, artists have always lived in Northampton. For more than 40 years, the city has been known as an arts town. According to Dylan Gaffney, a local historian who works at the special collections at Forbes Library, young artists moved to the city and set up music venues and art spaces, leading to an economic boom in the late 1970s.

When Gaffney was involved in a project digitizing art journals from the 1980s, he realized that “we have lost quite a bit” of arts diversity. At that time, when he was a young resident in town, there was a vibrant nightlife, he says. “I was out seven nights a week in my 20s. There were so many parties, shows, and gallery openings.”

Roy Faudree is the founder of No Theater alongside 1973 Smith College graduate Sheena See. An experimental theater, No Theater has been performing in Northampton for more than 50 years, though in the 1990s and early 2000s they performed more in New York and Europe.

Faudree came to Northampton in the early 1970s as an MFA student at Smith College. Upon graduation, he said he was lucky to be able to rent the bottom floor of a house for $100, utilities included. Eventually Faudree “accidentally stumbled onto a house that we could purchase for $20,000.”

The rich artistic life drew people from neighboring towns, Boston, and New York City to come to Northampton as their destination.

“A lot of local work being done was because economically it was great. We can make and perform art cheaply,” Faudree recalled.

The popularity led to the rapid increase in rents. By the early 1980s, there were already artists being driven out of their spaces due to increasing rent and gentrification.

“Frankly, we have lost so many people, so many people in our arts community here left town and moved to somewhere where (it is) affordable to live,” said Gaffney.

A vote by Amherst in the mid-1980s enforced rent control on apartments, Gaffney pointed out. “If we (Northampton) had gotten some rent control bill passed back then, it would have made a huge difference,” Gaffney said.

Without rent control, the cost of living continued to rise in Northampton, contributing to the high cost of living for artists in the present day.

Affordable housing

In 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 10.4% of people in Massachusetts fall below the poverty line. In Northampton, 11.4% of the population is below the poverty line, causing affordable housing to be in high demand in the city.

Northampton has been slowly working to expand affordable housing options, says Keith Benoit, the city’s community development coordinator who oversees the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which is the pool of money that the city uses to develop affordable housing. He says that Northampton is different from other communities in the area due to a historical distinction, receiving money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development each year in the form of a CDBG to help fund affordable housing.

Despite this financial privilege, the city faces constraints in building enough affordable housing. Only three affordable housing development groups operate in the entire Pioneer Valley. Moreover, each of these developers is only allowed to apply to the Executive of Liveable Communities for funding once each year.

One major challenge for developers is rising construction costs, explains Alexis Breiteneicher, the executive director of Valley Community Development, one of the affordable housing developers in Northampton. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, energy costs for construction rose by 53.3% just last year. State funding restricts each organization to two projects, and last year only one of Breiteneicher’s projects was funded: “We have a bunch of projects ready to go. … We just have to sit around and wait for the funding to come out.”

In order to start a project, “the money has to be there,” Breitenecher said, and “the systems that support getting money out of the doors have to be there.”

An artist’s experience

David Andrews makes art about racial justice and societal change using graphite pencils, recycled novels and even hornets’ nests. Throughout the early 2000s, he lived in the affordable housing that Northampton is working to provide.

In 2002, Andrews moved to western Massachusetts from his hometown of Chicago and began work as a gallery assistant at the Smith College Art Museum. This is where he started to experiment with three-dimensional graphic pencil illustrations. During this time, he lived in traditional low-income housing. Even though this affordable housing program was available to him, he had issues with its accessibility.

“They want so much information from you,” said Andrews, recalling that it felt demeaning to apply for affordable housing.

After living in affordable housing for less than a year, he applied for Section 8 Housing. There, he said, “you lose control over everything.”

“You have to report every cent you make, every cent you receive,” he said. While Andrews has not lived in Northampton since he was in traditional affordable housing, he has lived in Whately and Sunderland which are both towns about 10 miles away from Northampton. In Whately, Andrews and his family paid $1,700 a month in rent for Section 8 housing. Today, he pays that same amount a month in mortgage for the home he owns in Sunderland.

Andrews said that the problem with affordable housing in Northampton goes hand-in-hand with a false progressive attitude where he claims that people pretend that “nothing’s going bad.”

“Studio apartments are going for $1,200 (a month). Where’s the diversity, equity and inclusion in that?” said Andrews.

He called the efforts of the city “inadequate,” saying that “no one wants to help without some condition” and suggesting that there’s often an ulterior motive associated with building affordable housing such as profit.

Action in other places

Other Massachusetts cities are taking major strides to support the arts community. A project to develop an affordable housing complex specialized for low-income artists has recently broken ground in Fitchburg, with 68 units including studio space. In Boston, artists can apply for Artist Housing Certifications, allowing individuals access to numerous “artist live/work spaces” throughout the city.

While more urban cities have resources to provide affordable housing specific for artists, Northampton and its neighboring towns are slowly working to develop more generalized affordable housing.

In 2019, Easthampton’s old mill buildings underwent renovations to develop 60 affordable housing units. This summer, Holyoke began work to transform the former Farr Alpaca Mill site into an 88-unit affordable housing complex. In Northampton, a 55-unit complex on Pleasant Street was built in 2019, and a 53-unit complex was built in 2022 at Village Hill.

That being said, people may still be struggling to afford to live in Northampton. Census data reported that about half of all renters in Northampton are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs. Additionally, about a quarter of all renters are considered to be severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs. Even though these rates are similar to those in the greater United States, they highlight an immense need for more affordable housing in Northampton.

While Northampton holds on to its historical image as an arts town, the reality is that there may not be enough affordable housing to draw artists to the city. Without such accessibility, is Northampton really an arts town?

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This article was written as a collaboration between the Gazette and Smith College students in a journalism course taught by Naila Moreira, with guidance from journalist Lauren Katz. The students engaged in a local crowdsourced-reporting project in which they asked the 18.1K-member Northampton, MA Facebook group what topics area residents would like to see reported in the media. Students voted on and reported out selected ideas as teams.